The Chase

In 1956 Cuban author Alejo Carpentier was in exile (again) in Venezuela – he would only return to Cuba three years later after Castro came to power (he was Cuban ambassador to France for a while). The novel he published that year, however – The Chase – though it is not explicitly mentioned, is clearly set in Havana. Despite being widely regarded as Carpentier’s best novel, and also an important influence on later Latin American writers (it is still ten years until Marquez writes One Hundred Years of Solitude), it was not until 1989 that it was finally translated into English by Alfred Mac Adam.

The Chase is a short novel in three parts. In the first part we meet a man on the run, as observed by the ticket collector in a theatre where a concert of classical music is currently underway:

“’A seat,’ said an urgent voice. ‘Any seat,’ the man added impatiently, while his fingers slid a bill through the bars of the ticket booth. The ticket books had been put away and, as the ticket taker was searching for the keys to get them out, the man disappeared into the darkness of the theatre. Then two more men came up to the booth.”

The ticket collector, who is also a music student, decides to take the bank note and use it to visit a prostitute, Estrella, but she turns him away, the note is a forgery, and he returns to hear the end of the concert. In the second part we learn of the journey that has led the fugitive to the theatre. We find him hiding in the house of an old woman, now bedridden, who once nursed him. The old woman dies and, after attending the wake, he goes to the house of Estrella, whom he also knows, and asks her to take a message to the one person he feels might still save him. She returns, however, to tell him that the bank note he gave her is fake, causing an argument with then taxi driver that soon involves a passing policeman and leads to an exit out of the window.

Eventually we discover why he is on the run. Responsible for an assassination using a bomb hidden in a book, he was captured and quickly confessed, implicating many of his comrades:

“He told them whatever they wanted to hear; he explained the recent attacks, and depicted himself as an apprentice, an extra, in order to lessen his own guilt; he listed the names of those who at that moment were sleeping on the couches in a certain villa in the suburbs or drinking an dealing cards at a long table in the dining room with their pistols hung over the backs of their chairs.”

Now he has one last hope of leaving the country, but when he reaches the house of the man whose help he was relying on, he finds it destroyed. In the third part we return to the theatre to discover the man’s fate.

Carpentier makes a number of connections between the narratives – not only the bank note and the relationships with Estrella, but more subtle links such as the man in hiding hearing the music of the music student, and the student seeing the wake. When the man is in the theatre is transfixed by the neck of the person in front of him:

“I must not look at that neck: it’s scarred by acne; it would be there, exactly there – the only place in the hall – so that the very thing I should not look at is near me.”

Later we discover that it reminds him of the first assassination he took part in:

“The back of the victim’s neck was soon so close that they could have counted his acne scars.”

The style of the novel is dense, with each chapter a single paragraph, using (as can be seen) semi-colons and dashes to break up the sentences. At times it is almost stream of consciousness, at others a distanced third person: in one chapter, the fugitive, whose every thought we have known, suddenly becomes “the person lying on the floor.” It is also morally dense, with the fugitive a heroic freedom fighter, a killer, a traitor, and possibly a police spy. His struggle for political freedom is contrasted with the student’s struggle for individual freedom, to be allowed to live as a musician:

“Despair gave way to shame. He would never get anywhere, never free himself from the maids’ room, from pressing his handkerchiefs on the mirror to dry, from worn socks tied up at the big toe with a piece of string, as long as the image of a prostitute was all it took to distract him from the True and the Sublime.”

These, of course, may represent contrasting forces which Carpentier understood. Despite its length, The Chase is not a quick read. The prose is demanding, and the reader is required to be attentive to the narrative which, at times, also feels like it is on the run. It is novel, however, in which passages can be picked out and enjoyed and, in that sense, it is easy to see why it was such an important work.

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5 Responses to “The Chase”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great find Grant! I had a near miss with a Carpentier book I have (and in fact I have two of his titles, but not this). He sounds a fascinating author.

  2. #1956Club – ready, set, go! – Stuck in a Book Says:

    […] 1streading’s Blog […]

  3. Simon T (StuckinaBook) Says:

    Interesting. I really struggle without paragraph breaks, so would have to muster courage to try this…

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